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A view of the prison cells surrounding a guard tower at Stateville Correctional Center.

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Can your city change your mind?

The design of our spaces can heal us, hurt us, and alter the way we think

Underwood Archives/Getty Images

There’s a significant chance that the room you’re in right now is controlling your mind. The room—if you’re like most North Americans, who’ve been found to spend roughly 90 percent of their time indoors, you’re probably in one—is exerting both strong and subtle influences on the way your brain functions. It may be making you anxious, or sad, or distracted, or highly efficient, or inexplicably tired, affecting not only your cognitive abilities and mental processes, but your emotional state, mental stability, and physical well-being.

All these consequences have been recorded scientifically, and it’s becoming evident that the way physical spaces are designed can have a measurable impact on the human brain. Architecture, interior design, and even city planning can affect human behaviors and mental processes, causing psychological, biophysical, and cognitive changes in people, often without them noticing. Mostly this influence happens by accident. But sometimes it happens on purpose.

A subset of neuroscientists and psychologists are now working with architects and designers to understand how and why spaces, from city sidewalks to buildings to individual rooms, have such strong cognitive and psychological impacts. How these spaces are designed can affect the way people think, feel, learn, and comprehend the world around them. And because we spend so much time in these spaces, how they are designed can have significant impacts on our lives.

The implications of this work are far-reaching. Researchers are exploring how design can help hospital patients heal faster, how office configurations can improve productivity, how homes can adapt to the hypersensitivities of children on the autism spectrum, and how simple features like windows and natural light can reduce our stress or improve our sleep.

Design affects the brain. Scientists and designers are starting to understand how and why. And as they learn more, they’re fueling the development of new design tools and approaches that are rapidly changing the built world around us. More and more, design can be used to achieve specific outcomes or to create certain effects. This scientific approach offers potentially groundbreaking and lifesaving ways of building spaces and cities. It’s also opening the door to a near future where design could be used maliciously to influence people's thinking, control their behavior, or even harm their health.

In the 1780s, English philosopher and jurist Jeremy Bentham developed a design for what he considered the perfect prison. It would be a circular building, with cells for individual inmates segmented within its circumference like slices of pie. Each would be walled off from the other, and the only view would be straight out through an iron grating to the building’s center.

At this point, there would be what Bentham called an Inspection Lodge, a circular room designed so that a guard inside could look out in any direction at the inmates. But the inmates would not be able to see in. His idea was that the inmates, unable to tell whether they were actually being watched at any given moment, would perceive that they were under constant surveillance and would acquiesce to the prison’s desired standards of behavior. He named this building the Panopticon, or the Inspection House, and its ultimate goal was design for psychological control.

Bentham saw other potential uses for this design. Factories could conceal supervisors to maintain control and partition workers to reduce distractions and improve productivity. Hospitals could use a modified inspection lodge so doctors and surgeons could ensure their treatments and instructions were being carried out properly. "Mad houses" could use the separated and exposed cells to reduce the need for "chains and other modes of corporal sufferance." Schools could separate students to eliminate "all play, all chattering."

A view of the prison cells surrounding a guard tower at Stateville Correctional Center.
The prison with its circular cell layout and the central guard tower at Stateville Correctional Center, which was built to follow the panopticon design by British philosopher and prison reformer Jeremy Bentham.
Underwood Archives/Getty Images

Design, Bentham argued, could be used to achieve specific outcomes. "Morals reformed—health preserved—industry invigorated—instruction diffused—public burthens lightened—Economy seated, as it were, upon a rock—the gordian knot of the Poor-Laws not cut, but untied—all by a simple idea in Architecture!" he wrote.

Bentham’s Panopticon design was eventually implemented in a number of buildings, most of which were prisons, like the state penitentiary in Stateville, Illinois. But the principle behind his proposal—that design can influence people—is manifested widely in the built world. Consider the awe-inspiring heights of a cathedral’s ceiling. Or the ordered rigidity of a public housing complex. Or the distracting and consumption-inducing layout of a shopping mall. Many architects and designers see it as part of their job to prompt these feelings and reactions. The new science explaining these responses will only make them easier to induce.

Halden Prison in southeastern Norway is the humanitarian’s Panopticon. Opened in 2010 and designed with the primary goal of rehabilitating its inmates, the maximum security prison has been set up like a tiny village. Most of the inmates are relatively free to wander its hallways and grounds, using shared kitchen spaces to cook meals, socializing with guards, and strolling its forest-like landscape.

The prison’s administrators focus on making incarceration as close to normal life as possible—reducing recidivism is a national priority—and the interiors look more like the common spaces of a college dorm than a prison. The cells have regular furniture, the rooms have plentiful natural light, and the buildings balance steel with softer materials like wood and kiln-fired brick.

Its designers, Erik Møller Architects and HLM Architects, prioritized physical and visual access to nature as a key element of the prison’s rehabilitative mission. These elements are intended to give the prisoners something as close to normal life as possible with the hope that when they get out, they’ll better integrate with society and refrain from criminal acts.

An exterior view with trees surrounding a building at Halden Prison. A view of a cell with normal furniture and natural light at Halden Prison.
Left: An exterior view of Halden Prison. Right: A cell at Halden Prison.
The grounds outside of the prison with trees and benches.
The grounds at Halden Prison in southeastern Norway, designed with the primary goal of rehabilitating it’s inmates.

Prisons and jails are obvious places to employ design towards these kinds of ends, and efforts range from painting drunk tanks pink for its supposed calming effect on inmates to building viewing rooms where inmates in solitary confinement can be exposed to videos of nature to reduce their psychological burden. But it’s not just prisons and jails. A growing number of hospitals and health care facilities are also trying to understand how spaces affect their patients and how to achieve specific results.

Take, for example, two suburban Pennsylvania hospital recovery rooms for people who’d had their gallbladders removed, a common and somewhat routine operation. The recovery rooms were identical in every way, except that one room’s window looked out on a brown brick wall while the other’s looked out onto the leafy tops of a stand of deciduous trees. In a 1984 study of how long patients stayed in the rooms to recover from their surgeries, those with the tree view were able to be discharged from the hospital almost a full day earlier than those with the view of the wall. They also used fewer strong painkillers, gave fewer negative evaluations of the hospital staff, and had fewer postoperative complications.

Hospitals have been using evidence-based design like this to improve conditions for decades—increasing natural light, changing door handles to reduce bacterial contamination, adding a simple plant to a hospital room. Now, hospitals and other health care facilities are being designed to achieve better outcomes from the start.

Natural light and views of nature were key requirements for the new Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, designed by the global architecture firm Perkins+Will and completed in 2012. Huge cylindrical light wells pull sunlight into terrarium-like gardens and open spaces throughout the building, and a rooftop garden provides a more immersive green space.

Based on studies of how clinicians use hospital space, the building was designed in a unique butterfly shape that’s intended to improve sightlines between hospital staff and patients. During the design process, the designers used the flat blank pavement of an unused tennis court to paint out the proposed floor plan at scale so that hospital staff could physically walk its future halls.

Left: The light filled atrium of the Rush University Medical Center. Right: Part of the rooftop of the center, covered in greenspace.
The cylindrical light wells in the atrium of the Rush University Medical Center lead up to part of the rooftop garden, providing a more immersive green space.
James Steinkamp Photography

Building science—and the scientific process—into architectural design has become a priority at Perkins+Will. The firm recently hired Dr. Eve Edelstein, an expert in neuroscience, anthropology, and architecture, to lead its Human Experience Lab, a research arm that investigates how sensory systems and cognitive neuroscience can inform the firm’s design principles. She’s leading studies on how different light spectra in rooms and offices affect people’s circadian rhythms, and how precision acoustic dampening devices can reduce distractions and improve cognitive functioning during creative tasks.

The Human Experience Lab uses two small rooms to test out design concepts and measure human responses through electroencephalography devices, eye tracking, galvanic skin response, motion trackers, and accelerometers. The lab also uses virtual reality headsets and immersive cave automatic virtual environments to test out visual and auditory simulations of designs still on the drawing boards.

Edelstein acknowledges that the scientific findings for this type of work aren’t surefire, and there can be wide variability in responses to different environments from person to person. "But we actually know enough to change our lighting or acoustics to do no harm or to do less harm, and to enhance our mental and physiological and health outcomes," Edelstein says. "We can start to understand the features of design that have the biggest impact. We’re about taking a holistic view and a reductionist view."

Sometimes the design solutions are more straightforward, particularly for people suffering from specific diseases or conditions. The loss of memory and mental ability associated with dementia is often acute enough to greatly alter a person’s daily life, as well as their mental health. Researchers and health care providers have found that an effective way to improve the psychological health of patients with dementia is to use what’s known as reminiscence therapy. Patients are exposed to objects and spaces familiar to them and encouraged to talk about their past as a way of engaging their minds and countering confusion and frustration.

The George G. Glenner Alzheimer’s Family Centers in San Diego County are taking this idea into the architectural realm. They recently partnered with the San Diego Opera’s Scenic Studio to build a scaled-down replica of San Diego City Hall, an interactive and intricately detailed space that the organization plans to include in Town Square, an 11,000-square-foot mini city designed specifically for people with dementia.

Modeled on various sections of San Diego, with 23 interactive storefronts and active spaces, Town Square is intended to be a built environment for reminiscence therapy, where people with dementia can safely experience fully immersive and familiar settings. Town Square is projected to open in 2018, and the organization is hoping to fundraise part of its $3 million cost. "The research shows that reminiscence therapy improves mood, reduces agitation, and improves sleep quality, and if we can create this environment not only for the participants, but also their families, then I think we really have an opportunity to change the model of care throughout the country," says Glenner CEO Scott Tarde.

Others have taken this idea even further. The Hogeweyk "dementia village" outside of Amsterdam is a live-in, village-style care center for senior citizens living with dementia. It has streets, public spaces, and amenities like a grocery store and bar, and its residents are able to safely live in what its operators call "a mirror image of recognizable lifestyles in our society." A second dementia village is being developed in Rome.

A patio and common area in between buildings at the Hogeweyk "dementia village."
A common area at the Hogeweyk "dementia village".
Concept and design by Dementia Village Advisors Netherlands

These isolated spaces for people with specific symptoms and conditions are useful, but some argue that more attention needs to be paid to the general population. Dr. Layla McCay is a psychiatrist who founded the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health, an independent research collaborative focused on building up evidence for urban design and development practices that support better mental health in cities. She says that design can be used to make cities feel safer and more accommodating for people with mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, and also to improve the mental health of people without diagnosed conditions.

The center has developed a set of policy recommendations for city planners and developers that encourages the creation of spaces that are green, active, prosocial (encouraging of social interactions), and safe. "You can apply this framework to any urban design project and say, ‘Okay, are we integrating these elements?’" McCay says. "You guys are already investing all this money, time, effort, and thought into designing these really great developments in the city. Can you make them even better by thinking for a moment about how they’re going to impact mental health and whether there’s anything you can do to tweak or develop different strategies ... to make them even more valuable by really focusing on improving mental health as well?"

How these ideas can trickle out from discrete spaces like hospital rooms into neighborhoods and cities isn’t clear, but a growing community of researchers and designers is beginning to think about it.

Colin Ellard was an expert in the movement of gerbils. As a perceptual psychologist, he’d extensively studied how the rodents navigated through space, analyzing their brains and behavior as they looked for food or avoided predators. This work—published in papers like "Distance estimation in the Mongolian gerbil: The role of dynamic depth cues" and "Spatial cognition in the gerbil: Computing optimal escape routes from visual threats"—was focused and extensive and spanned more than 20 years.

And then, about 10 years ago, Ellard took a year-long sabbatical from his post at the University of Waterloo, the type of hiatus many academics use to travel for visiting professorships, write books, or otherwise solidify their expertise. Ellard opted for a hard stop. He picked up and moved to a remote fishing village in Nova Scotia.

He calls it "an existential break," and he used it to reflect upon his work and what he should do with the second half of his career. His studies of how gerbils respond to and move through space, he decided, were somewhat limited in their potential applicability. He wanted to think bigger. "I realized I’d been ignoring the most interesting animal and how it uses space," he says. As quickly as he could, he abandoned gerbils and switched his focus fully to that other, more interesting species: humans.

Now, Ellard is an expert in the movement of people—how we find our way to the places we go and how our brains respond to different types of environments. The setting of much of his work is the city, and he’s been conducting experiments to understand psychological reactions to common conditions in the cityscape.

Using tools like EEG headsets to monitor electrical activity in the brain and phone apps to collect qualitative data, Ellard and his team at the University of Waterloo’s Urban Realities Laboratory have been measuring responses to common urban places like busy street corners, walking paths within parks, and downtown blocks with varying levels of activity and architectural interest. The data they collect both in real cities and in virtual reality environments is used to draw conclusions about what causes anxiety, fear, and comfort in cities, and to offer suggestions to city officials for improving urban design.

Ellard is part of a growing subset of behavioral and cognitive scientists who are turning their focus to the built world. Through research and human tests in labs and in the field, they’re developing a robust academic literature on the biological and psychological effects of places.

The sunset through buildings at the Salk Institute.
The Salk Institute for Biological Studies.
Chad McDonald/Flickr

Many of these scientists—along with architects, designers, academics, and at least one Nobel Prize winner—gathered recently in La Jolla, California, for the biennial conference of the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture. Established in 2003, ANFA is focused on neuroscience research relating to the human response to the built environment. Its conference is held, fittingly, at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, the widely regarded masterpiece of architect Louis Kahn, who used simple materials, abundant natural light, symmetry, and the institute’s oceanfront site to create a space conducive to research. He called it an "intellectual retreat."

In the years since the Salk Institute opened in 1960, design has become a more precise tool to inspire or influence, and designing spaces is evolving into a highly scientific process. Presenters at the ANFA conference explained how buildings, rooms, and even office furniture can be shaped to affect concentration, behavior, and stress levels.

"It’s so easy!" says George Christopoulos, a professor at Singapore’s Nanyang Technology University. He’s on the conference stage showing a photo of a hallway full of people walking. To encourage them to take the stairs instead of the elevator, somebody had laid down a thick red line of tape on the ground leading from one end of the hall to the foot of the stairs. In the photo people are following the line, consciously or unconsciously obeying this simple exercise of social control. Easy.

The crowd laughed, acknowledging the truth and the lie in the photo. Yes, it can sometimes be easy to influence basic behavior (or mood or health or brain activity), but it can also be incredibly difficult or even impossible to fully control. ANFA is trying to cultivate an interdisciplinary approach to science and design that creates more opportunities to harness design's power over the brain.

One study presented showed how curvilinear spaces are intrinsically more appealing than rectilinear ones. Another showed that the lighting in solitary confinement cells can alter circadian rhythms in a way that leads to disorientation and depression. A study of office spaces showed that creative tasks are better accomplished alone in offices and attention-based tasks are better performed when another person is in the room, but both tasks are performed more poorly if two people are working at desks side by side. Another study found that people subjected to a stress test performed better in a virtual room with a window—a possible escape from the stress, apparently—than people in a virtual room with no visible openings.

Researchers are using new technologies and tools to measure experiences of awe in different building types, the subjective experience of time in various spaces, the commonalities in what physical shapes people find aesthetically pleasing. EEG monitors, skin monitors, functional magnetic resonance imaging machines—all these technologies are being used to evaluate the human response to spaces. Measuring the electrical conductance of the skin can show researchers how aroused or stressed people are in different environments, for example. And the amount a person blinks can indicate how much cognitive effort they're unconsciously putting into understanding their visual surroundings. Architects can use these kinds of results to better tailor their buildings to different uses and users.

"We’ve been guessing for a few millennia," says architect Itai Palti, "and now we’re just trying to check ourselves." He’s been using the science of developmental psychology to inform the design of Urban Thinkscape, a set of playful learning installations focused on language and math that can be placed in the everyday urban settings that children and families are likely to encounter. Working with Temple University psychologist Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Palti is designing the first of these installations for an underserved part of West Philadelphia, and the project was recently awarded a $1 million prize to support and replicate the model.

Palti, who’s based in Tel Aviv and London, is thinking broadly about how designers can integrate scientific findings about how space affects people and how design can change or improve people’s experiences. He’s recently teamed up with Bar-Ilan University neuroscientist Dr. Moshe Bar to explore what they’re calling "conscious cities"—built environments that apply the findings of behavioral and cognitive sciences to more actively respond to the needs of their users.

They propose that smart city technologies can be used to adapt urban environments for different conditions. Flashing lights and advertisements could be dimmed or turned off at times when crowded streets are likely to cause higher incidences of anxiety and stress, for example. Or traffic-guiding bollards could be deployed in streets at low-traffic times to create more sidewalk and patio space. This science-based approach, he says, "can help shift the focus of design from being efficient to being effective."

As urbanization brings greater numbers of people into cities, using design to improve the way we inhabit the city, as well as our mental and physical health, will become more important. The coming future of even more densely packed cities was a major inspiration for Colin Ellard’s academic reorientation, he says. His studies in cities like New York and Mumbai have solidified his contention that cities need to use design to help people adapt to increasingly dense and crowded environments, for the sake of psychological sustainability. "We need to make a compelling case that getting urban design right is a matter of public health," Ellard says.

There’s great potential for this type of design. The cognitive and behavioral sciences can offer guidelines for designing places and spaces to improve health, make us better workers, increase our happiness, and cater to the individual needs and quirks of people with seemingly any illness or condition.

But, like the prisons of the not-so-distant past, there’s also the potential for unwanted or even nefarious forms of social and mind control. Some of this social control is already happening, taking the form of spikes that prevent the homeless from sleeping (as well as unintended usage by skateboarders) and high-frequency sound devices used to annoy adolescents and dispel them from storefronts. With the new knowledge about how light and sound and space can affect people, these types of deterrents could become even more malicious.

Tuned LED lighting could covertly shine the light spectra that harm our ability to sleep through the night. Sub-auditory sounds could be broadcast in certain neighborhoods to increase anxiety and foment conflict. Workplaces could be reconfigured to counteract creative abilities and reduce employee turnover. If benevolent uses are possible, so are malevolent ones.

This neuro-designed architectural dystopia may be possible, but it’s unlikely, says Edelstein, the neuroscientist at Perkins+Will. "I know that I can change certain aspects of human health and behavior. For example, architecture can influence our wakefulness or tiredness by controlling the exposure to natural diurnal and nocturnal light. Poor acoustics can distract our concentration or impede communication. The design of a space can help us to relax, or support a creative mental state," she says. "But can I drive a person to adopt a certain behavior, to think in a certain way, to ignore the tasks at hand that they have to do, by architecture? Perhaps to some extent, but I would argue that architecture is not that deterministic. It can't control our minds to that level because our minds are too complicated."

Whether these techniques are used for good or bad, they raise ethical questions about what counts as a problem to be designed around, what social conditions or disorders are deemed unacceptable in society, and, perhaps most importantly, who is making these decisions.

But for now, even the moderate levels of control Edelstein mentions may be further off than they seem. Actually testing out some of these ideas and their impacts—outside of a virtual reality headset or an fMRI machine—is complicated, especially at the scale of architectural spaces like rooms and entire buildings.

But a new project from the global architecture firm HKS may begin to make some of these sorts of tests possible. The firm’s research arm is developing a prototype "sensory design lab" with the aim of modifying various architectural and spatial parameters to monitor their effect on people. The idea is "to make evident the relationship between physical parameters and the human response using a flexible, trackable, and portable lab," says Dr. Upali Nanda, director of HKS’s Center for Advanced Design Research and Evaluation. "Our objective is to use this lab as a space to explore what happens if we change one parameter at a time. What kind of measurable response are we getting? How can we have the most meaningful impact on human response?"

Developed through a $30,000 grant from the American Society of Interior Designers, HKS will be using its prototype lab in conjunction with the Dallas Independent School District to study students’ biometric responses to personalized learning spaces. Those studies will run from January to April, and will focus on a single modifiable parameter: the furniture. Nanda is hoping to expand this work at HKS headquarters to study parameters like lighting, acoustics, ceiling height, and wall finishes.

But the science is somewhat limited and slow in generating results. Nanda’s team is planning to study one parameter at a time, but in real spaces, multiple elements of a design can affect a person at any moment. Understanding how all these elements interact and affect people is a long way off. But Nanda is confident that her studies, and the field in general, will help to develop a neuroscience-based architecture that better serves people.

"There is tremendous innovation in the building technology industry, as well as the cognitive sciences, including neuroscience. Our aim is to bring the two together," she says. "Imagine the ability to track, in real time, the human response to changing space and place parameters so we can develop a paradigm of responsive architecture. This is where we see the world going."

Editor: Sara Polsky


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